Seven days after Grandma died and one day after the fire burned her body away, there was an infestation of holes that took over 53 Thornton Street. The first hole was just a pinprick in the mirror but it was right in the spot between my eyes so I thought a tiny army man was taking aim in the spot where they told me honor comes from. I could almost see that army man too, no bigger than just an inch or two tall and a gun the exact width and length of a match. These were the thoughts I had when my mom called us down to dinner.
“But first,” she said, “I need to know who did this.” She was pointing to a hole the size of a tea cup saucer over the stove, just deep enough that we could see the pink installation that peeked through, like soft fur, from the oil-specked walls.
We did not point or say it was his or her fault. Instead, we stood and watched as my mom dragged a chair over and covered the hole with a newspaper that she taped down with bright green tape. “You think you are all so clever,” my mom said, “but this thing cannot keep going on.”
Dinner that night was quiet; we were all thinking about different things and the soup grew thick in the pot because no one was hungry. We sat stirring our bowls cold and then my dad said, out of nowhere, “Just look at that now.” When no one moved, he banged the side of the bowl with his spoon and said, loudly, “Look.”
We all lifted our heads and followed where he was pointing. From where we were sitting, we all could see the large white wings of the albatros perching on top of our garbage can. Its beak was sharp and the side that was facing us was speckled with dried blood.
That was the summer when the developers pushed into our side of the beach and every day, we watched the bulldozers creep up and down our street. At night, the shadows grew sinister and the construction men stayed out later and later so I took to sleeping with my mom, something I thought I’d outgrown when I turned twelve. My dad slept in the living room and even with the door shut, we could hear his snores from up the stairs. My mom had this fantastic braid of hair that she let down only at night and that whole summer, I slept next to her and felt the ends of her thick hair with my fingers – but only after I knew she was asleep.
I used to watch how the girls next door leaned against the back porch. I liked how they wore their shorts, low on their waist, and peppered their talk with their hands grasping at the air at things I could not see from my bedroom window. One girl, a friend of a friend, had the longest nails I’ve ever seen, painted gold so when she spoke, I saw flashes near her mouth, darting around her eyes and scratching at her stomach. The girls smoked together, a big cloud that only parted when such and such from down the street walked up and asked one of them to come with him. Sometimes, I could hear things about a kegger down at the soccer field or a basement party. But mostly, I sank into the middle of their laugh, deep and velvet and the echo of their feet as they stomped down the stairs, tugging at such and such’s jeans. They would say, “You shits ain’t ready for dis.”
I would continue watching the back porch steps even when all the girls went away.
Here is what lives on our mantle:
– a white sheet, covering the picture frame
– a plate of oranges that blisters in the heat. (The smell was sharp and crisp, making me blink each time I walked by.)
– a teacup, filled to the top with ashes from the incense that we light each morning and night.
– a carton of Marlboro Reds, Grandma’s favorite kind.
Now, whenever my dad calls, I wonder exactly when (but never how) his voice became just a whisper, so soft that it doesn’t even disturb the men who are asleep next to me. If voices had a texture, my dad’s would be the velvet that lines the inside of ears. Before, it was all barbed wire and drums.
That summer lasted forever and the mosquitoes tore up even the inside of my thighs, though I made sure to lock the windows each night before I went to sleep.
When the school year came around again, like it always does, my brother decided to never say Grandma’s name out loud. He would leave at night, when he thought we were all asleep and snuck back inside before breakfast.
In the mid-day sun, crouching near the line of trash cans, I touched the holes in the aluminum sliding and the low concrete walls supporting the porch. I wonder if it was the hammer or the back of one of Mom’s cleavers. Sometimes, if I kept my fingers still, I could feel the inside of the house shake with my brother’s anger.
Eventually, when the trees out front snapped in two under the weight of first rain, than snow, my mom closed up the windows on 53 Thornton St. and shut the door. We moved to a house on the other side of town, far away enough that we couldn’t hear the developers breaking apart our street to build new commuter apartments though we could feel, under our feet, when the drills broke through the sand and the machines poured concrete over everything. When the developers burned down the last of the pier, my dad cried harder than he did even during Grandma’s funeral and my mom said that is how things usually go.
Holes; on the street, behind our eyes, in the center of the car tires, in the bending-over trees and the spaces between our floors.
One hole in the living room, where her armchair used to be. She sat there when we were all away, bathing in the sunlight. Another hole where Grandma used to hold my hand.
The boy with muscles and a heart-shaped scar under his chin taught me how to skip a rock, nice and smooth, with a flick of my wrist. He filled up red solo cups with sea glass to give to me and traced his name with his finger across the back of my neck. He said, “China girl, I love you” and I thought how nice it was to say something – anything – with such finality.
After that long summer, his family moved, first to Idaho and then Wisconsin, sending me postcards that dripped green and brown. Then Alaska, Florida, upstate New York and right outside St. Louis and then so many other places afterwards that I lost track of not just where he moved to but also, of him. First, I couldn’t recall the color of his eyes. Then, it was his voice and quickly, it grew to me forgetting his hair, his hands, his naked body until all that stayed with me was the way he took a deep breath after I took of all my clothes.
It made me feel important and special and warm, all in that one deep breath.
Kimarlee Nguyen was born and raised in Revere, Massachusetts in a family of Khmer Rouge survivors. She holds a B.A in English from Vassar College and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Long Island University, Brooklyn. Her fiction has previously appeared in Drunken Boat, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Hyphen Magazine, Corium Magazine and an upcoming anthology published by Third Woman Press.